What happened to your netiquette? Sound advice before you post

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 February, 2013, 2:55pm

Have you ever vented your anger at someone on an internet message board, or rashly updated your Facebook status with negative comments? If so, you're not alone because many otherwise perfectly rational human beings have a habit of going ballistic online.

The internet has always been a place for freedom of expression, with strong language, heated debates and personal attacks from anonymous posters ubiquitous. I've experienced online haters myself, albeit mildly. Last year, I wrote an article on digital television for a technology website, and the next day the editor phoned me up. "You might want to take a look at the comments on your article," he said. I wish I hadn't bothered. I'd made a small mistake when writing about transcoding compressed stereo signals which had ruffled some feathers in geekdom; more than 30 negative comments followed my article, the first few from someone identifying himself as "Shadow" brazenly accusing me of all sorts of things, and the rest a free-for-all between various posters. The language was far more colourful than anything I was allowed to write, that's for sure. I quietly corrected my mistake and never looked at the page again, but only after a few days mentally compiling a vengeful reply to Shadow over and over again.

Arguments escalate very quickly on the internet. Maybe I'm more sensitive to language than most, but I even find posts that begin, "the fact is" or "with the greatest respect" aggressive. I have little chance of keeping my cool in such forums, but it's those who post diatribes and bad language online who have the most to lose. The internet was once seen as a transient medium, but digital footprints don't go away, and with social media sign-ins used increasingly on comment boards, anything written on the internet could affect your future prospects with both partners and employers.

We need some netiquette - and fast. "Anonymity and not having to make eye contact are very emboldening for some," says Judith Kallos, an online etiquette expert at US-based who has some advice for anyone posting comments on the internet. "Keep the conversation on track using acceptable language and sticking to facts without adding any personal digs or controversial terms. If you need to resort to name-calling or profanities that indicates your ideas are not really based on any substance."

What about netiquette in the new age of social media? "Social media is very narcissistic and I don't think many understand where to draw the line between what they are public about because, by its very nature, social media is 'all about me'," says Kallos. Shorter interactions online - such as on Facebook - are potentially easier to misinterpret. "Folks will always assume what the other side meant. If you don't know the person, if they are not a true friend - by definition of what a friend really is - you just can't assume what they mean, but we do. The other side also has the responsibility to take the time to ensure that their intent, tone and meaning are clear, regardless of how short their message is. But most don't do that, either," she says.

However, Kallos doesn't think there is anything new to add to these rules. "Everything we talk about when it comes to e-mail etiquette applies, regardless of where or how you are posting," she says, although there are some culture-specific nuances to netiquette: "In Asian cultures, how you are addressed is important - become too informal too soon and you risk insulting the other side. The key is to use technology with knowledge, understanding and courtesy."

Another source of online idiocy is with our personal and financial details. Mobile shopping is booming in Hong Kong, with PayPal reporting that around 1.1 million people have shopped on a smartphone or tablet in the past year - a growth of 444 per cent in a single year - spending a whopping HK$6.4 billion.

Research from Nielsen finds that 62 per cent of Hong Kong shoppers do not believe mobile shopping transactions are safe enough while 15 per cent of mobile shoppers have actually experienced fraud. The fact that over half of those making purchases online spend less than HK$100 suggests that confidence in the "digital wallet" needs some shoring up (PayPal's own service is one attempt at that), and that's partly because each of us knows how idiotically insecure we've made our online financial and personal data. PayPal advises that we all use unique passwords that aren't everyday words or names of our family members, pay with a trusted third party payment platform, only buy from retailers with buyer protection, and be wary of those offering unbelievably low prices.

Online etiquette protects every individual, but what about each other? Picture the scene: it's rush hour on the MTR and you're one of hundreds of people pouring out of the station. What do you do next? Keep moving, or slow down, reach for your smartphone, check your e-mails and ignore the crowd you're obstructing? We've all done it - and we know we shouldn't.

A study into smartphone use partly conducted in China by Cisco reveals that 60 per cent of people compulsively check for e-mails, texts, or social media updates - and more than half use them during social meals.

If that's you holding me up in the morning while you stop to leave a poorly judged comment on Facebook, please find a side-street to do it. No one wants to walk into an idiot on the internet.